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Earth day and sustainable theatre

Earth Day: Five ways theatre can become more environmentally friendly

Will Longman
Will Longman

Each year, Earth Day rolls around and we take a step back to appreciate the planet, and become more aware of the ways we could do better.

Well, it's theatre's turn to face the music. Theatres are set to be dark for months given the current coronavirus blackout, but that means there's no better time to consider changes which could be made to make theatre more sustainable. Rather than attempt to implement small-scale changes while productions are running, producers and theatre owners have an opportunity to draw up plans to make theatres eco-friendly.

To get them started, here are five considerations we want to see theatres making in the future.

Ditch the plastic

How integral to a theatre trip is a visit to the bar, either before the show or during the interval, for you? And how often does is your drink served in a plastic cup?

If we take an average day in the West End (where seats were, on average 80.7% filled in 2019 according to SOLT), and conservatively estimate that one in five patrons buys one drink in a 3g plastic cup (20% of 33,937 is 6,787), then an average eight-show week would see 162kg of plastic used in the West End.

This is, of course, simply beer-mat maths and we've had to guess at the percentage of audiences who use a plastic cup, but it does give some perspective to the issue.

Theatres have been aware of this for some time, though, and have been implementing measures. Recent visits to ATG theatres have been surprising as many will now let you take glass inside the auditorium. But this itself creates issues, as I discovered at the recent press night for Pretty Woman. While it was a treat to be handed a glass of bubbly upon arrival, they were left in the footwells to be collected like plastic cups, inevitably leading to them being stepped on and crushed, leaving shards of glass across the carpet.

Other theatres have taken a slightly different route, with the Bridge supplying reusable cups at their bars for small deposit which can be regained upon returning the cup after the performance. This is common practise now at some larger arena concerts, and could be something rolled out across the theatre network.

Paperless tickets and programmes

If every ticket sold in the West End was a physical paper ticket, over 30 tonnes of paper would be used in the West End annually. That's the weight of two double-decker buses, and two-and-a-half-years-worth of tickets would weigh the same as the Space Shuttle.

It's a problem theatres and concert venues are well aware of. The Old Vic recently began issuing e-tickets to its performances, and critics were even emailed PDFs of the programmes for reference, rather than a hard copy. And if the technology is available, where a booking creates a QR code to be emailed to a customer rather than trigger a physical ticket to be printed and posted or delivered to the box office, then it's an easy problem to solve.

But, simply put, it's not. The ticketing ecosystem of the West End is a complex myriad of bespoke systems talking to each other millions of times a day. Each theatre operator will have its own system to agent which tickets are available, and share this information with ticketing agents, which takes that information and sells a ticket to a customer. This, historically, is a paper ticket, and when it's delivered, that's the end of the process. With e-tickets, the agent will have to be able to supply a scannable QR code which can be read by an usher, so the theatre operator's system has to be able to understand it.

Each operator and ticketing agent currently has its own way of doing things, and so for e-tickets to take off, a new system, or something universal, would have to be created from scratch.

For the sake of almost 80 trees worth of paper a year, it's hard to argue it wouldn't be worth it, yet with all its complexities something like that could take years. So why not keep it simple, and put recycling bins at every exit just for tickets?

Switch the lights off

One of the iconic images of the capital is the buzz of Shaftesbury Avenue lit by theatre facades, and its as exciting for a Londoner to spill out onto a street full of the West End's bright lights as it is for a tourist.

However, there have been tweets at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown from people who have noted the lights are still being turned on. After some digging, TfL webcams show that the facades of a number of theatres down Shaftesbury Avenue are still switched on. All night. During a national lockdown.

In 2008, a report by the Mayor of London suggested that adjusting the hours façade lights are switched on, and using energy efficient lightbulbs could account for a 4% saving in CO2 emissions alone. (You can read more from that report, which put London's theatre's annual emissions at 50,000 tonnes a year, here.)

It goes without saying that this is pretty ridiculous, but just like you remember to switch every light in your house off after you go to bed, could the last one to leave the theatres please turn the lights out?

Consider efficiency backstage

It's not just front of house where changes could be made. As technology has advanced, West End theatre has taken huge technological strides, they have become enormous spectacles akin to running an arena concert eight times a week.

In 2014, Sholeh Johnston of Julie's Bicycle, a charity that supports the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability, published an article in The Guardian that issued ten ways productions of any scale can think more sustainably. These included:

- Switch lights off between shows or after rig checks
- Using rechargeable batteries
- Recycling props and costumes after productions
- Education and engagement of staff

They are simple changes, but by consciously making small changes, it could lead to bigger changes in the process, and the wholesale changes could be substantial.

Collaboration

While producers are clamouring for bums on seats in their theatre rather than the one next door, there's no space for competition when it comes to saving the planet.

Many of the recommendations are universal, and are relatively minor changes which could be changed across the board. If theatre operators, ticket agents, producers and SOLT were to put their heads together and produce an environmental code for all to follow, there would be no ambiguity about what is possible or expected of theatres.

Education also has a big part to play, but it is expensive. So why not spread the cost? Pooling resources and having everyone in the West End taking the same courses, developing the same mindset and learning the same lessons will help achieve these goals in the long-term.

Originally published on

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